Is the Battle for Inclusion being fought with an Exclusive Mindset?

By Shruti Pushkarna

In the past, I have written a few pieces on accessibility and the rights of persons with disabilities to be part of all that is mainstream. As I began to pen down my thoughts, I realized that ‘disability’ is always looked at as a ‘separate’ domain. By governments, by businesses, by non-profits, by educationists, and even by advocates of ‘disability’. When all stakeholders are guilty of looking at the subject as separate from the rest of the society, then how can we single out anyone and pin the onus of change?

I also realised that amid the current crisis, a new normal is emerging and unfortunately persons with disabilities are not part of this discourse either. Old habits are shaping new, existing policies are being extended to incorporate new rules but the approach remains the same. One of looking at disability separate from the rest, as the other which needs ‘accommodation’ or needs to somehow ‘fit in’.

Retrofitting is at the root of all things that continue to remain inaccessible. An idea that is designed for a majority and leaves out the vulnerable minority will never be able to cater to everyone’s needs. The makeshift solution is either inadequate or temporary. Patches begin to surface as more people start accessing it. And then the scuffle for revising and revamping ensues.

Build a mall without an elevator or a ramp. Then renovate it to make it ‘accessible’ for someone on a wheelchair. Build a home with a narrow staircase and no handrail. Then renovate it for older family members to move about independently. The list goes on.

The amount of time, effort and money wasted in refurbishing, can easily be saved with planning for ‘all’ at the very go. But like I said, this is an outcome of how we think as a society. Our minds are tuned to box people and issues before they can be found a befitting solution.

Even non-profit organisations that are working towards the ‘overall upliftment’ of our society, define disability as a unique cause. Charities focused on areas pertaining to education, child trafficking, women empowerment, unemployment, elderly care etc. don’t include it as a component in their primary programmes even though disability is a cross-cutting issue.

Similarly, while formulating policy, the objective is to create a new set of rules rather than making all existing policies disabled-friendly. While the former is exclusive, the latter can obliterate the need for separate departments, divisions and units to address the needs of a section which is a mere subset of the 1.3 billion populace.

The disabled community has always stayed on the peripheries because of the lack of access to mainstream environment (both physical and virtual). There are crystal clear demarcations between able and disabled, normal and abnormal, them and us. And the current crisis has made the bitter reality even starker.

Let’s take the case of ‘education’, which is a fundamental right of all citizens as per the Constitution of India. For any student with disability, getting into mainstream mode of learning has never been easy despite the Right to Education Act and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act in place. Schools and colleges have been disrupted due to the recent coronavirus pandemic. Examinations have been called off and all forms of imparting and evaluating education are taking place online. This brings the average disabled student face-to-face with the ‘access roadblock’, where most don’t have personal devices or a stable internet connection. Thousands of students in their final year are at the mercy of their university to complete their graduation. Are they expected to drop out because the system simply doesn’t acknowledge their existence?

The government’s latest offering, the Aarogya Setu app, is inaccessible. This when the intent is to have the app installed on every phone. Digital payment apps and online banking websites continue to discount a user with screen-reading software. Online meeting platforms like Zoom, Skype, Webex, Google hangouts have certain inaccessible features. Be it regular television via set-top box or OTT platforms, entertainment content isn’t entirely accessible.

Our reality is changing every day. We are facing unforeseen crisis in the form of a virus, cyclone, flood, earthquake and so on. If the disabled are not included in the disaster management scheme of things, or are left out of the newer ways of existence, that’s a huge number (26.8 million to be precise) wiped off the country’s face in an instant.

Are we okay to live with that? Or can we use this as an opportunity to pause, rethink and design all physical and virtual spaces/services keeping the needs of each citizen in mind?